Excerpt

Optic Nerve

María Gainza, translated by Thomas Bunstead

April 10, 2019 
The following is from María Gainza's novel Optic Nerve, whose narrator, an Argentinian woman obsessed with art, tells her life story through the stories of her favorite artworks and artists. María Gainza has worked as a correspondent for The New York Times Argentina and ARTnews. She has also been a contributor to Artforum, The Buenos Aires Review, and Página/12's Radar. She is coeditor of the collection Los Sentidos, and author of Textos elegidos, a collection of notes and essays on contemporary art.

I first encountered Dreux on an afternoon in autumn; the deer, precisely five years later. In Dreux’s case, I left the house one day under blue skies only to be caught in a sudden downpour. The narrow, winding streets of Belgrano were soon in full spate. Women clustered together on the sidewalks trying to establish the best places to cross; an old lady assailed the side of a bus with her umbrella when the driver refused to open the doors; and before long the shop owners, watching the deluge through their window displays, brought out the metal barriers they had armed themselves with after the previous flood.

I was due to take some foreign tourists around a private art collection. That was my job at the time, not the worst job in the world, but that day, while I sheltered under the awning of a bar to wait for my clients, a car came past hugging the curb and drenched me and my pristine yellow dress. Three more plowed through the same puddle in quick succession, the rain stopped—as suddenly as it had begun—and of course who should pull up seconds later but my tourists? They were a middle-aged couple from the U.S. She was dressed all in white and he all in black; stepping out of the taxi they looked immaculate, improbably dry, as though they and their clothes had come directly from the dry cleaner.

We made our way to a house that had formerly been a small hotel with extensive gardens and was now boxed in between one neo-rationalist monstrosity and a lurid California-style duplex. A porter let us in and then led the way through to the living room, gliding eel-like ahead of us between the furniture. A quarter of an hour later a hidden door slid open and the owner of the collection appeared. She looked at me; I looked at her: a game of chicken she won hands down. She was dressed in gray, and her mouth had the lines of a woman bitter at finding herself the wrong side of forty. Her nose was more blade-like than aquiline, and on her cashmere sweater she wore a golden brooch of a small creature that, because of the distance she kept throughout our visit, I never managed to identify.

She looked me over with the same incredulity she had voiced on the phone the previous night. She couldn’t understand why I wanted to come when she could very well show any visitors the paintings herself. In my firm I was director, secretary, intern, and guide all rolled into one—that was how I kept things afloat, as I had tried to explain, though not in so many words.

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“Quite the go-getter,” she had said. “Very well, see you tomorrow.” And see me she did, dripping grimy water onto the gleaming parquet. She sent for some dry footwear. A few minutes later a pair of fluffy white slippers appeared, and as I stepped into them my clients’ loss of respect for me was complete. My only chance: to show them how good my eye was, deliver a particularly insightful commentary, and once I got going I felt I was doing okay, more or less, until I was confronted with a dapple-gray horse, galloping straight at me under pewter skies. I glanced over at our hostess—for less than a second, but long enough:

“Alfred de Dreux.” She smirked, mounting a cigarette in an ivory holder with her long, elegant fingers, almost preening. “Nineteenth century. Didn’t they cover him in college?”

“Of course. A magnificent piece.”

Two lies for the price of one: I had never heard of Dreux, and the piece struck me as little more than decorative. The work of someone technically gifted, but nothing more.

My clients looked back at me with identikit American smiles. Their expressions, in combination with their monochrome outfits, brought to mind the fake smiles in Jorge de la Vega’s Puzzle.

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*

As I say, I saw Dreux’s deer for the first time five years later, on another stormy April afternoon, this time in the National Museum of Decorative Arts. I was on my own, as I always try to be when seeing something for the first time, and prepared for a washout in my chic wellington boots— ankle-cut wellington boots. Maybe it had something to do with my footwear, but this time it was fireworks, what A. S. Byatt called “the kick galvanic.” It reminded me that all of art rests in the gap between that which is aesthetically pleasing and that which truly captivates you. And that the tiniest thing can make the difference.

I had only to set eyes on the painting and a sensation came over me: you might describe it as butterflies, but in fact for me it’s less poetic. It happens every time I feel strongly drawn to a painting. One explanation is of dopamines being released in the brain, and the consequent bump in blood pressure throughout the body, though Stendhal put it rather differently: “As I emerged from the porch of Santa Croce, I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart; the wellspring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground.” A couple of centuries later, the nurses in the emergency department at Santa Maria Nuova Hospital, shocked by the number of tourists swooning before Michelangelo’s sculptures, dubbed it Stendhal syndrome.

On this second afternoon, in an attempt to keep my cool, I went out into the winter gardens. I tottered on the roof of a boat, reeling, my eyes spinning like compasses with the magnets removed. After some air I went back inside, feeling psychologically prepared this time, and it was a relief to find Dreux’s deer still there. The painting hung in what had once been the Errázuriz family dining room, a baroque imitation of one of the salons at Versailles. The space was large, but not disproportionately so, and it might have been pleasantly warm if the autumn sunlight had been allowed to stream in through the garden windows, but the security guards, seeming to think an electric heater no bigger than a brick was sufficient, kept the blinds down. You could just about see your own breath.

There were in fact two paintings by Dreux in the room, both hunt scenes, both painted around the middle of the nineteenth century, but only one of them drew my eye. A doubtless reductive description would go something like this: it is a very tall piece, and in its lower portion a pack of hounds encircles a deer, while the upper panels, which look very much like they have been added as an afterthought to fit the painting to the room’s high ceilings, are filled with ranked, squally clouds, a portion of blue sky, and a generic-looking tree. Fairly conventional, no point denying it, but it grabbed me nonetheless. More than that: it unsettled me.

*

Alfred de Dreux was seven years old when, on a walk around Siena one day with his godfather, he met the great Théodore Géricault, the martyr of French Romanticism, who was there to study Simone Martini’s lines. It was Géricault’s mission to single-handedly arrest portraiture’s inexplicable decline, and in circumspect little Alfred he immediately saw an exquisite model. He painted him standing on some rocks while a dry, warm foehn blew down from the Sienese slopes, flushing the boy’s cheeks. (The portrait sitting in fact took place in his studio; the background came afterward.) The painting was ahead of its time in an era that tended to look on the young as nothing but adults in miniature: the boy Alfred stands out for the spirited look in his eye, his apparent cool indomitability.

A fateful encounter, it would seem, because when Dreux visited Géricault two months later in Paris he found that the master dealt not only in epic scenes of shipwrecks and hair-raising portraits of madmen, but also rather stripped-back animal pictures: portraits of horses, lions, and tigers, evincing the same penetrating eye as his portrayals of people. These images left an impression on Dreux, and when, years later, the Duke of Orléans wanted someone to paint his horses, he chose Dreux from among hundreds of candidates, thus sealing his reputation as the best equestrian painter in all of France. He came to the attention of King Louis-Philippe, who, in exile in England after the 1848 Revolution, invited him to cross the Channel several times on commissions.

Dreux died at the age of fifty in Paris, of a liver abscess that had dogged him since his time in England, though a view prevailed in the salons that it was a saber wound from a duel with General Fleury, Napoleon III’s aide-de-camp, after a disagreement the details of which the court-in-exile sought furiously to suppress.

*

What would the guests of the Errázuriz family have thought of these paintings? Would any of them have stopped to look at the Dreux? Or would their eyes have slipped over them the same as they did the beige wallpaper? I picture a group of them sitting around the table. The first course finished, the door opens and the head butler enters bearing the meat, served on a bed of boiled potatoes, a knob of butter and some fresh parsley on top; behind him comes one of the staff with the silver gravy boat, a hunting-horn motif etched along its sides.

Someone mentions the treaty with Chile: war has been avoided. This is Señor Errázuriz’s cue; in his capacity as ambassador, after all, he knows more than most. His wife, Josefina, smiles; a recent addition, she still thinks she’s expected to show an interest in male conversation. She steals a look at the drawn face of the woman sitting on her right. She realizes—is alarmed to realize—that this will quite soon be her own face. She shakes out her hands, arresting the passage of time with a momentary drop in her blood pressure, which also has the effect of accentuating the whiteness of her skin.

After dinner, the refuge of a game of whist. The only person to look at the painting is the older woman, Señora Alvear, once upon a time the famous soprano Regina Pacini: in fact her eye travels back and forth constantly between the deer in the picture, still alive, and the other one, dead and served to them in lean cuts. In the Renaissance-style parlor next door, a carved wooden clock chimes. The Señora Alvear shivers; a cold draft, she assumes. It has been some time now since she has known what it is that she feels.

*

Hunting scenes were quite common in Dreux’s day, evocations of a sport that had been a class marker since the Middle Ages, when the hunt became an elite pastime and often the only means of preparing men for war. An unintended by-product was that it gave the nobility a way of measuring itself—though only against itself. The first ever enclosures of forests and common land came about to enable exclusive access to big game. Commoners had to make do with birds and rabbits; bears, wolves, and deer became the landowner’s right.

The Gothic art of the late Middle Ages emerged out of a meeting of Sienese and Flemish styles. The illustrated Book of Hours known as the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry is one of its best examples. The folio depicting the December “labors of the month”—activities undertaken by the duke’s court and his peasants according to the time of year—shows hounds snapping at a boar’s heels in a forest clearing, and could almost be a Dreux in miniature. It is likely that he saw the Très Riches Heures when he visited the Château de Chantilly with Napoleon III. The visual acuity he learned from Géricault was then combined with the languid, stylized approach of the manuscripts, and the resultant images, crammed with detail, had not a jot of empty space inside them: matter pervades every last inch.

Dreux pulses with atavistic symbolism: the struggle between good and evil, light and dark. The deer is about to die. One of the dogs sinks its fangs into the back; another, a leg. The deer, on the verge of giving in, neck elaborately contorted, tongue out, is goggle-eyed with the same helpless astonishment as the hare described in Lampedusa’s The Leopard: “Don Fabrizio found himself being stared at by big black eyes soon overlaid by a glaucous veil; they were looking at him with no reproval, but full of tortured amazement at the whole ordering of things.” How well Lampedusa understood the unpredictability of events, their tendency to go full circle at the last, always leaving in their wake something akin to a glinting snail trail: ultimately ephemeral, certain to be lost in the mists of time.

*

Three years ago, a girlfriend of mine from university went for a walk around the edge of a hunting reserve in France. She was there visiting her Paris-based sister, a rising star at Lancôme who had met a Belgian millionaire and borne him two children. My friend was newly single and, being incapable of holding down a job, broke. But her sister bought her the plane tickets and insisted she come.

When she arrived, on a Friday morning, her sister announced that they had been invited to spend the weekend at a château in the country. they drove out in the afternoon despite dire weather warnings. An area of low pressure had come in and when they pulled up to the house the heavens opened. My friend found a bed and slept ensconced in a feather duvet until late the next morning. I picture her getting up and washing her face, and jumping when the gong was struck. She hurried downstairs. And saw out in the gardens twenty or so guests advancing zombie-like in the direction of a marquee in which a long table had been set for lunch. She fell in behind them.

Her sister appeared a short while later and sat at the far end; the ski jacket of the previous night was gone, replaced by a green loden cape. Occasionally a gust of wind lifted a section of the marquee, giving a brief view of the rolling grounds, the lake with its thick covering of leaves, the enormous trees still dripping from the previous night’s downpour. Some of the trees were so ancient that metal girders had been brought to prop up the branches, giving them a stooped look, like giants on crutches. The couple sitting next to her were both architects, and they talked for a while, but there was a chill to the northern air and at the first chance she dragged her chair over to a patch of sunlight to warm her bones. Coffee was still being served when she got up and said she needed to stretch her long legs—since the age of nine she’d had the spindly legs of a deer. One of the young men, French, offered to accompany her. He suggested they go to the end of the long allée and back.

They walked slowly. The path was muddy and the wind rushed about in the casuarina trees. “We’re bound to see some hares,” said the young man. “It’s the time of year for them.” They came to the end of the allée and started back. In the distance, from some neighboring woods, a horn sounded. Someone calling the hounds in. Just then, my friend’s boot became stuck in the mud. She strained to lift it out, but when her companion offered his hand, she waved him off impatiently: “I can manage.” A second later a stray bullet hit her in the back, entering through one of her lungs.

She dropped to the ground; according to the Frenchman, her look was one of pure surprise. “Was that all?” it seemed to say. “Is that it?”

A month before, she and I had bumped into each other in the street. It had been ten years, and we stopped and caught up, or made a stab at it. She was attractive, thirty-five years old, and had got herself a new boyfriend and a job, too, in an auction house. She said she had been doing long hours for not very much money but, because she’d never felt the urge to have children, it didn’t bother her. Whenever I think of her it’s in the second when her boot sticks in the mud and she stops just where the bullet is about to strike. And I cannot tell what I should do with a death as ridiculous as hers, as pointless and hypnotic, nor do I know why I mention it now, though I suppose it’s always probably the way: you write one thing in order to talk about something else.

__________________________________

Copyright © 2019 by María Gainza, from Optic Nerve. Excerpted by permission of Catapult Press.




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